Reflecting on Aimee Nezhukumatathil's Visit

Last Thursday, January 21, after weeks of reading her poems and short stories, the Lawrenceville community finally welcomed visiting poet and essayist Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who is this year's Wilder Writer in Residence.

Last Thursday, January 21, after weeks of reading her poems and short stories, the Lawrenceville community finally welcomed visiting poet and essayist Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who is this year's Wilder Writer in Residence. Although her visit looked a little different than usual, my English teacher Ms. Ray noted that the department hoped to "translate the normal Heely Room experience to the Zoom classroom" through interactive classes and webinars. Ms. Nezhukumatathil's visit was an exciting event not only for those within the department, who have been teaching her work for years, but also for us III and IV Form students who have been studying and working to emulate her writing.

Each year, IV Formers spend one term in English practicing the difficult skill of personal essay writing. In preparation for Ms. Nezhukumatathil's visit last week, my English class had been reading short stories from her most recent book, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments. The book is a collection of primarily personal essays in which Ms. Nezhukumatathil uses animals, insects, and natural phenomena as "portals" into her personal life. From working on my most recent English assignment, my own 600 word "portal" essay, I can attest to the difficulty of making connections between an animal to one's identity. When asked how she, herself, brainstorms these intriguing ideas, Ms. Nezhukumatathil admitted that she was helped by her self-proclaimed nerdiness and love of nature. "You should be able to say what your favorite cephalopod is," she jokingly told us before reading an essay about her personal favorite, the vampire squid.

My favorite of Ms. Nezhukumatathil's essays is "Red-Spotted Newt," in which she compares her own journey in finding a home to that of the red-spotted newt. Throughout the essay, she switches between an objective description of the newt's life cycle and impressive homing capabilities and a personal story about her lifetime of moving that concluded when she finally settled in Mississippi. The personal connections Ms. Nezhukumatathil makes to the individual creatures she discusses in each of her essays not only express her identity but also help inspire her audience to engage in natural conservation.

During an interview with Director of Sustainability Dr. Laubach in the nighttime webinar, Ms. Nezhukumatathil reiterated the importance of the environmental message her book delivers: "When you get to know about the plants and animals that are just right outside where you live, you have less of an appetite for destruction." She hopes that by sharing her own awe about the natural world, she will make it harder for others to destroy it. Ms. Nezhukumatathil also structured her book in a very thoughtful way to emphasize the importance of environmental protection. She begins her book with essays that make personal and emotional connections to the natural world in order to hook the reader so that by the time she shifts her lens to explicitly address climate change in her later essays, the audience will feel inclined to empathize with her message. Ms. Ray's favorite part of the visit was listening to Ms. Nezhukumatathil's discussion of her book's purposeful structure: "It was interesting to think about how the placement of those essays about climate change was very intentional and how she was clearly thinking about how to win over a reader to care about the natural world."

In the end, Ms. Nezhukumatathil certainly succeeds in impressing upon me the importance of making a change. Her vulnerability as she shares intimate details regarding her identity, as well as the beautiful language she uses, shows us her immense skill as an essayist and allows us to feel closer to nature. Even more powerful than this development of intimacy is her ability to intertwine personal stories with messages of environmental protection. Her simple yet intentional language has become a powerful tool of eliciting social change. Her passion for both writing and nature shines through as she works doggedly to connect with her readers. As she asserts in the ultimate paragraph of her book, the magnificence of any animal could be "the spark that reminds us to make a most necessary turn—a shift and a swing and a switch—toward cherishing this magnificent and wondrous planet." World of Wonders is definitely a leading literary force in combining creative writing with natural conservation, and it clearly aims not only to express but also to inspire.


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